Who are Dalits? & What is Untouchability?
The word “Dalit” comes from the Sanskrit root dal- and means “broken, ground-down, downtrodden, or oppressed.” Those previously known as Untouchables, Depressed Classes, and Harijans are today increasingly adopting the term “Dalit” as a name for themselves. “Dalit” refers to one’s caste rather than class; it applies to members of those menial castes which have born the stigma of “untouchability” because of the extreme impurity and pollution connected with their traditional occupations. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ falling outside the traditional four-fold caste system consisting of the hereditary Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra classes; they are considered impure and polluting and are therefore physically and socially excluded and isolated from the rest of society.
Dalits represent a community of 170 million in India, constituting 17% of the population. One out of every six Indians is Dalit, yet due to their caste identity Dalits regularly face discrimination and violence which prevent them from enjoying the basic human rights and dignity promised to all citizens of India. Caste-based social organization extends beyond India, finding corollaries in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as other countries outside of South Asia (see below). More than 260 million people worldwide suffer from this “hidden apartheid” of segregation, exclusion, and discrimination.
What is “Untouchability”?
India’s Constitution abolished “untouchability,” meaning that the dominant castes could no longer legally force Dalits to perform any “polluting” occupation. Yet sweeping, scavenging, and leatherwork are still the monopoly of the scheduled castes, whose members are threatened with physical abuse and social boycotts for refusing to perform demeaning tasks. Migration and the anonymity of the urban environment have in some cases resulted in upward occupational mobility among Dalits, but the majority continue to perform their traditional functions. A lack of training and education, as well as discrimination in seeking other forms of employment, has kept these traditions and their hereditary nature alive.
Types of Untouchability Practices & Discrimination
In the name of Untouchability, Dalits face nearly 140 forms of work & descent-based discrimination at the hands of the dominant castes. Here are a few:
- Prohibited from eating with other caste members
- Prohibited from marrying with other caste members
- Separate glasses for Dalits in village tea stalls
- Discriminatory seating arrangements and separate utensils in restaurants
- Segregation in seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals
- Prohibited from entering into village temples
- Prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of dominant caste members
- Devadasi system - the ritualized temple prostitution of Dalit women
- Prohibited from entering dominant caste homes
- Prohibited from riding a bicycle inside the village
- Prohibited from using common village path
- Separate burial grounds
- No access to village’s common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
- Segregation (separate seating area) of Dalit children in schools
- Prohibited from contesting in elections and exercising their right to vote
- Forced to vote or not to vote for certain candidates during the elections
- Prohibiting from hoisting the national flag during Independence or Republic days
- Sub-standard wages
- Bonded Labor
- Face social boycotts by dominant castes for refusing to perform their “duties”
Prevalence of Untouchability Practices & Discrimination
These statistics are taken from a survey of practices of untouchability undertaken in 565 villages in 11 major states of India. They clearly demonstrate that the inhumane and illegal practice of untouchability is still commonplace in contemporary India:
In as many as 38% of government schools, Dalit children are made to sit separately while eating. In 20 percent schools, Dalits children are not even permitted to drink water from the same source.
A shocking 27.6% of Dalits were prevented from entering police stations and 25.7% from entering ration shops. 33% of public health workers refused to visit Dalit homes, and 23.5% of Dalits still do not get letters delivered in their homes. Segregated seating for Dalits was found in 30.8% of self-help groups and cooperatives, and 29.6% of panchayat offices. In 14.4% of villages, Dalits were not permitted even to enter the panchayat building. In 12% of villages surveyed, Dalits were denied access to polling booths, or forced to form a separate line.
In 48.4% of surveyed villages, Dalits were denied access to common water sources. In 35.8%, Dalits were denied entry into village shops. They had to wait at some distance from the shop, the shopkeepers kept the goods they bought on the ground, and accepted their money similarly without direct contact. In teashops, again in about one-third of the villages, Dalits were denied seating and had to use separate cups.
In as many as 73% of the villages, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit homes, and in 70% of villages non-Dalits would not eat together with Dalits.
In more than 47% villages, bans operated on wedding processions on public (arrogated as upper-caste) roads. In 10 to 20% of villages, Dalits were not allowed even to wear clean, bright or fashionable clothes or sunglasses. They could not ride their bicycles, unfurl their umbrellas, wear sandals on public roads, smoke or even stand without head bowed.
Restrictions on temple entry by Dalits average as high as 64%, ranging from 47 % in UP to 94% in Karnataka. In 48.9% of the surveyed villages, Dalits were barred from access to cremation grounds.
In 25% of the villages, Dalits were paid lower wages than other workers. They were also subjected to much longer working hours, delayed wages, verbal and even physical abuse, not just in ‘feudal’ states like Bihar but also notably in Punjab. In 37% of the villages, Dalit workers were paid wages from a distance, to avoid physical contact.
In 35% of villages, Dalit producers were barred from selling their produce in local markets. Instead they were forced to sell in the anonymity of distant urban markets where caste identities blur, imposing additional burdens of costs and time, and reducing their profit margin and competitiveness.
Analogous Systems of Discrimination in Other Countries
Caste and analogous systems of social hierarchy operate across the world, particularly in Asia and Africa, subjecting millions to inhuman treatment on the basis of being born into a certain caste or similar social group. Though the communities themselves may be indistinguishable in appearance from others, unlike with race or ethnicity, socio-economic disparities are glaring, as are the peculiar forms of discrimination practiced against them. It is approximated that around 250 – 300 million people across the world suffer from caste, or work and descent based discrimination, a form of discrimination that impinges on their civil, political, religious, socio-economic and cultural rights.
Common features seen in caste and analogous systems across the world include the following: (a) Physical segregation; (b) Social segregation, including prohibition on inter-marriages between caste groups; (c) Assignment of traditional occupations, often being occupations associated with death or filth, coupled with restrictions on occupational mobility; (d) Pervasive debt bondage due to poor remuneration for lower-caste occupations; (e) High levels of illiteracy, poverty and landlessness as compared to so-called higher castes; (f) Impunity for perpetrators of crimes against low-caste communities; (g) Use of degrading language to describe low-caste communities, based on notions of purity and pollution, filth and cleanliness; and (h) Double or triple discrimination against and exploitation of women of low castes on the basis of sex, class and caste.
Below is a list of some communities in other countries around the world facing discrimination due to caste or some analogous social hierarchical system:
Bangladesh: Methor community (traditionally sweepers and manual scavengers)
Burkina Faso: Bellah community (traditionally slaves, unpaid manual laborers, to other caste ‘owners’)
Japan: Buraku community (at the bottom of the Japanese class system; traditionally viewed as filthy and/or non-human)
Kenya: Watta community (traditionally considered low, worthless, and consigned to a life of servitude from birth)
Mauritania: Haratin community (these ‘black moors’ are considered slaves to the Bidan, or ‘white moors’, in Mauritanian society)
Nepal: Dalit community (situation is essentially the same as that of Dalits in India)
Nigeria: Osu community (traditionally the Osu people are ‘owned’ by deities and considered as outcaste, untouchable, and sub-human)
Pakistan: Dalit community (like Dalits in India except in Muslim society there is no concept of ritual pollution; concepts of privilege and shame used instead)
Rwanda: Twa community (at bottom of social hierarchy with no legal protections from discrimination and no representation in positions of power/authority)
Senegal: Neeno & Nyamakalaw communities (largely blacksmiths and leatherworkers, they are considered impure and face explicit segregation and exclusion)
Somalia: Midgan community (minority outcaste group facing violence, refusal of rights, and possessing no legal protections)
Sri Lanka: Rodi/Rodiya & Pallar/Paraiyar communities (these groups face discrimination in employment, practices of social distance, and denial of access to resources)